Nisia Eisweep had hoped she would get a chance to speak with the General before combat broke out again, but when she attempted to reach him, he had refused to answer his comlink. A message to the bridge of the Cathleen had been just as fruitless; the starfighter coordinator, Kryi Rinnet, had informed her that the General was in a meeting with representatives from the New Republic and could not be disturbed.
Frustrated, she was pacing the hangars near the battle-damaged New Republic X-wing and Y-wing when Lenn Kaman found her.
“I don’t even know why Jess asked me to come,” she complained.
The ex-Imperial pilot was slow in answering, as was his style; he always thought before he spoke. “The General must have had reasons.”
“Naval combat? I’m no capital ship captain, and I’m not a starfighter pilot.” The Zabrak shook her head. Her dyed pink hair, pulled into a topknot, was just long enough to brush her shoulders. “I’m not even a military officer; never have been, never will be.”
“Then he must want you here for reasons other than military,” Lenn reasoned.
Nisia snorted. “We haven’t done that since before he joined the Rebel Alliance.”
Lenn uncharacteristically blushed. “That wasn’t what I intended.”
The Zabrak woman just shook her head again.
“Why do you call the General ‘Jess’ instead of Halyn, or Lance, or Sanshir?” Lenn asked.
“He’s always been Jess to me,” Nisia answered. “Short for Jessik.”
That brought Lenn up short. “Wait…you’re telling me the General was the pirate Jessik? The founder of the Zynt’aia Pirates?”
Nisia’s smile showed teeth. “He wasn’t always a good and noble defender of democracy, the Republic, and the Zabrak,” she answered. “He was a hell of a pirate lord. After he joined the Alliance, the Zynt’aia just sort of fell apart. No one could manage it like he did.”
Lenn shook his head. “Even after all these years,” he murmured. “The General likes to keep his cards close to his chest, doesn’t he?”
“Always has,” Nisia agreed. “Jess never shows his hand until he’s already won.”
Klaxons blared throughout the hangar. Nisia grimaced and covered her ears reflexively, then allowed them to fall away. “Another push?” she asked.
Lenn already has his comlink to his ear, listening. He nodded. “The Yuuzhan Vong aren’t going to give us much time to breathe,” he replied, his voice raised to make himself heard.
All around them, maintenance crews scrambled to disconnect fuel lines. Zabrak pilots sprinted to their starfighters. Here and there, droids finished reloading missiles and torpedoes, bolted down open hatches, or simply moved for cover. The shriek of repulsorlifts quickly raised in pitch to equal and then exceed the warning klaxons as pilots ran power to their engines. Hangar doors slid open, sending rumbling vibrations through the hangar decking that were felt more than heard.
The pilot had to shout to make himself heard over the ever-increasing din. “You do any gunning before?”
“I need someone to run the weapons systems on my B-wing,” Lenn shouted. “C’mon, let’s move!”
Kryi Rinnet listened with half an ear to her comm as the deck controller reported successful launches. Her eyes were firm on the tactical display as she watched squadrons of starfighters launch from the Cathleen, and then from dozens of frigates around the fleet. More squadrons were already scrambling up from Iridonia proper, clawing for altitude and speed to join the defensive fleet.
The sight of the Yuuzhan Vong fleet took her breath away. This time, they weren’t holding back. A wedge of cruiser analogs led the way, aimed straight for the Cathleen and the Dauntless. The Yuuzhan Vong grand cruiser was even now vectoring in on the Star Destroyer derelict. Its intent was clear: destroy the wreck of a vessel that had cost the Vong so many resources, and do it quickly.
As she waited for General Lance to arrive, she concentrated on her proper role: coordinating the starfighter squadrons.
“Talon Wing,” she breathed into her comm, “go ahead and break out in front of the fleet. The skips will be coming, and I need you to break up their momentum before they arrive. Claw and Fang Wings, vector thirty degrees; that should keep you in the sensor shadow of the Cathleen until you’re up to combat speed. When the Talons break up the skips, you’re going to pounce at full throttle.”
She heard acknowledgements from the wing commanders, but her mind was already moving onto the next zone of the defense. Never thought, all those years ago, that I’d be standing here, the veteran pilot thought. Hell, back in those days, I didn’t think I’d live to see the end of the war.
Blonde-haired with a face unadorned by tattoos, Kryi was acutely aware that non-Zabraks often found her attractive. She also had never really cared; her life had been about combat and warfare. Her early years had been filled with the adrenaline of starfighter combat, of going to guns with an enemy intent on killing, and proving she was better. It was only when she had survived, even the battle of Endor, that she had been forced to think ahead. She’d accepted a post aboard Home One for a time, and the formation of a proper Zabrak government, including the formation of the Zabrak Defense Force, had found her leaving the service of the Alliance to protect her people.
Part of her ached for a return to the cockpit. I should be over that. I’m not a kid anymore getting adrenaline highs. But her hearts told her she still belonged in combat.
“Razor Wing,” she called abruptly, “vector to two-eighty and stay in formation. Blade Wing is drawing a group of skips, and you should be able to fall into…there you go,” she amended as the wing of A-wing interceptors slid into kill position behind thirty-odd coralskippers. “Move fast, though, you’ve got another group of skips trying to get into cover position.”
Starfighters swirled and danced across the tactical display. “Mace Wing,” she called now, “you’re clear for a run on the leading Vong capital ship. Once you’ve made your pass, vector past the battle to intercept that grand. Knucklers, run cover for them and keep the skips off.”
“Negative that last,” the voice of Halyn Lance came from behind her as the General finally arrived on the bridge, trailed as was usual lately by the massive Wookiee Anishor. “Leave the grand alone.”
“Sir?” Kryi asked in confusion.
“Grey and Skifter will intercept the grand,” the Zabrak Ul’akhoi said calmly. “Concentrate on the battle lines here. I’ll let you know if I need anything moved out to pick on the big target.”
Halyn studied the tactical displays with grim certainty. “They’ve learned from their mistakes,” he murmured to Anishor.
The Wookiee berserker nodded his assent.
On the tactical overview of the system, Halyn could see the Yuuzhan Vong warships clustered together. Not unlike the duo of the Cathleen and the Dauntless, they were overlapping defenses and firepower to devastate individual Zabrak warships. Whereas previously the “hunter groups” had been able to tease out individual Vong warships and hammer them with overwhelming firepower, now the yorik coral vessels maintained tight formations in spite of the slashing attacks by corvettes and frigates.
Not good. He pondered a moment on why the Yuuzhan Vong formations looked so familiar, until abruptly it struck him. They’re using shielding trios. Just like we’ve put our starfighter into trios to overlap defenses to keep the Vong’s firepower off, and to combine firepower to overcome coralskipper defenses, they’ve just taken it up to the next level.
Of course, there’s weaknesses to that, too. Halyn looked away from the hologram to a touch-sensitive flat display, and then tapped one of the coral warships. “Transmit this target to the Dauntless and the Cyclone,” he shouted above the din. “Coordinate our fire with theirs to hammer this target. Then,” he added, tapping another one of the coral vessels on the opposite side of the formation, “transmit this target to all free hunting parties.” He glanced to the starfighter coordinator station. “Kryi, target the central vessel with a couple of starfighter wings when we have the other two tied up.”
He heard shouts of acknowledgement across the bridge. Overlapping defenses makes them far more formidable; it’s harder to break through and destroy the target. But for capital ships to do that, they sacrifice maneuverability and give us far fewer targets to concentrate on.
“Dauntless and Cyclone have acknowledged targets, sir. They’re waiting on your order.”
Triak Kraal was nearly shaken from his command throne by the fire raking his warship. Off to his port, the blaze bugs showed the Shared Sacrifice slowly being overwhelmed by fire from the largest of the enemy’s warships. To starboard, the Final Death was hammered over and over by groups of the enemy’s smaller warships. Even in pairs and trios, the small infidel warships were not a real threat, but the enemy’s commander continued to rotate the vessels in and out, and even with the overlapping defenses, theFinal Death was being taken to pieces.
And now, the vessel he’d chosen as his flagship for this push, the Harla’s Steed, was being steadily assaulted by squadrons of infidel bombers. Every nearby detonation of proton torpedoes shook the vessel, and coral dust filled the air.
“My warriors, continue the push!” he shouted. “This battle is the redemption of Domain Kraal. When we have utterly destroyed these infidel defenders, no one will doubt we are true Yuuzhan Vong. We are not Shamed; we are the chosen people of the gods!”
Cries of agreement bounced from the coral walls. He glanced over his shoulder to his tactician. “Your analysis.”
Ret Kraal stepped forward to study the blaze bugs. “The infidels are fully occupied with our attack,” he said. “And now the Kor Chokk closes the distance with the infidel trap, and will immolate it within moments.” He nodded slowly. “Now is the time.”
Triak stroked a villip to life. When the image of another Yuuzhan Vong appeared in the living communicator, it almost immediately spoke: “Belek tiu,” the other said.
The Commander gave his order. “Deploy the yorik-akaga,” he said sharply. “Do-ro’ik vong pratte!”
“Woe to our enemies,” the other said, and the villip dipped as the distant warrior bowed. “As you command!”
<Halyn,> Anishor said slowly, <I think we are missing something.>
The Zabrak general raised an eyebrow as he studied the tactical hologram. “What do you mean?”
<Look.> The Wookiee pointed with a claw. <The Yuuzhan Vong are huddling together, overlapping their defenses to prevent their own destruction. Your hunting parties are slashing in and out as you expected, taking little damage but not able to penetrate their defenses. Only here,> he continued, pointing at a trio of ships at the front of the formation, <are your ships having any effect at all. My battle cruisers and starfighters are engaged heavily, but are seeing similar effect. >
Halyn’s eyes narrowed. “Which means they’re stalling.”
Anishor nodded. <The Yuuzhan Vong do not fight in this way. They commit themselves fully to each battle, heedless of pain or death. It is how they have won many battles. Whereas we care about our losses, and attempt to preserve lives, they care only for destruction and fear not their own to accomplish their goals.>
“So what are they waiting for?” Halyn asked, studying the tactical hologram as he looked for new clues.
<The arrival of their grand cruiser, perhaps?> the Wookiee suggested as he pointed at the distant vessel. <Even now it moves to destroy your Star Destroyer, such as it is.>
“Such as it is,” Halyn repeated in Basic. “Maybe that’s what they’re waiting for, but why would they commit the rest of their fleet before it was ready to join the party?”
Anishor shook his head. <There must be something else. Their own trap, perhaps, with vessels coming from hyperspace as we have already done twice to them?>
“This close into the gravity well? I won’t pretend I completely understand what their warships are capable of, but I’ve yet to see them do something our own warships can’t. No, I don’t think they can jump in this close.”
<Could they be attempting to keep us pinned here, while they assault another world in Zabrak space to force you to split your defenses?>
Halyn started to answer, then paused to consider. “No,” he said at last. “That’s never been the Vong’s style. They hate feints; when they commit to a fight, they’re committed completely. If they had any sense at all they’d have left to find a softer target already, but with this big a fleet here engaging us? They’re committed to beating us at Iridonia.”
As they spoke, damage was creeping through the defenses on both sides of the battle lines. Smaller Yuuzhan Vong warships were starting to fall away from the tight formation as proton torpedoes and concussion missiles slipped through weakened and tired defenses, opening bloody craters in the sides of the living warships.
Several Zabrak corvettes, caught unready, were shattered as flaming molten projectiles penetrated shields and melted through metal. One of the vessels exploded, sending its partners in uncontrolled tumbles away from the protection of the rest of the fleet.
All around them, starfighters preyed on coralskippers and coralskippers preyed on starfighters. Explosions littered the battlefield, tiny punctuations for a fight that was growing bloody in spite of the defensive stance of both fleets.
What are the Yuuzhan Vong waiting on? Halyn asked himself as he watched the tactical holograms.
Triak Kraal turned in anticipation as he watched the mighty Kor Chokk close to firing range on the infidel derelict that had caused the Yuuzhan Vong so much grief since their arrival. “Now, you die,” he murmured.
Lenn Kaman coaxed every bit of acceleration he could out of the B-wing, cursing under his breath the entire time. I should’ve signed out an E-wing. He glanced over his shoulder, past Nisia Eisweep strapped in behind him with her hands and concentration filled with the task of operating the B-wing’s impressive arsenal of firepower. Behind him was a mixed group of fighters—X-wings, E-wings, other B-wings, and several refitted Xg-1 Assault Gunboats.
Ahead, not yet visible to the eye but clearly laid out on his sensors, swarms of coralskippers were busy destroying the few remaining droid fighters. He gritted his teeth. “We’re not going to make it in time,” he muttered. In a few moments, the Vong’s grand cruiser would open fire on the Star Destroyer and reduce it to smaller bits of wreckage.
Halyn tapped the controls for the tactical display. The immediate zone of combat, with both sides fighting defensively, vanished. The image of the derelict Star Destroyer and the closing Yuuzhan Vong grand cruiser, much larger now, occupied the entire tactical hologram.
<It has been a good distraction,> Anishor noted. <Your use of it has definitely made the battle here easier.>
Halyn smiled faintly as he keyed his comlink for the line to his astromech, far below on Iridonia. “I’ve got one last trick to play,” he said. Into the comlink, he quietly gave the order: “Execute Bacta Salvo.”
The Yuuzhan Vong had fought against the New Republic for several years, from the early engagements near Helska all the way to Coruscant. The New Republic Defense Force had fought in what was considered a “hard” style, measured in terms of control of star systems. Warships advanced or defended, inflicted damage upon each other, with the side taking the worst of it retreating. Starfighters typically engaged starfighters; capital ships engaged capital ships; tactics were not necessarily straightforward, but based around a common set of principles.
Early engagements with the Yuuzhan Vong and subsequent analysis of the results had turned space combat into a game of bait-and-switch. New Republic forces had worked to trick dovin basals into expending their strength against decoy attacks, reserving the heavy firepower for when the defending creatures had exhausted themselves. In return, the Yuuzhan Vong were careful to reserve their strength for when it was needed, and often played the role of counter-puncher.
In each engagement, from the Rim to the Core, combat was conducted around those basic principles. After the first year of combat, Argus and Halyn had analyzed every scrap of information they could glean from New Republic after action reports, from battle holos shot from starfighters, from interviewing any Zabrak pilot or officer who had fought in the battles.
They had concluded, after several months of work, that the Yuuzhan Vong simply had never had to fight against a “soft” style—the hit-and-fade, the weapons and tactics not revolving around establishing or maintaining control, or simply what wasn’t useful in a fleet engagement.
Argus had been a key leader for Iridonia’s resistance, which had spent years inflicting damage on Imperial occupiers. Halyn had been a pirate and later an Alliance starfighter commander, neither of which were concerned with controlling star systems and engaging in straight-up fights, particularly against a superior force.
In preparation for the invasion both were certain would come, Halyn and Argus had both looked back to battles fought before and after Endor for inspiration, and prepared unorthodox tactics accordingly.
The Yuuzhan Vong grand cruiser, crewed by thousands of Yuuzhan Vong warriors, bore down on the last remnants of the Imperial occupation of Iridonia from decades before. Halyn found the irony of it more than a bit satisfying as he watched the automated systems—the final trap he and Argus had laid within its hull—execute itself perfectly.
Heavy tractor beams came to life first, locking onto the grand cruiser. As Halyn expected, the massive vessel tried to pull itself away, but succeeded only in dragging the remains of the Star Destroyer along with it. When it became obvious that the tractor beams were strong enough to hold the two vessels together, actually bringing them closer like magnets, the Yuuzhan Vong opened fire on the derelict.
Halyn smiled as the second stage of the trap executed.
Lenn Kaman clung tightly to the controls, still trying to make it to the derelict in time to do anything about it. Coralskippers vectored towards his squadron, and he let out a breath in defeat. “Lock s-foils in attack position,” he ordered. “Break by shield trios and engage the skips.” We won’t make it in time, he thought.
And then brilliant blue and pink pinpricks of flame erupted from the Star Destroyer’s hull.
The Yuuzhan Vong crew never really had a chance. Dozens—no, hundreds—of proton torpedoes and concussion missiles blasted away from the hull of the Star Destroyer. They flashed in all directions for the first half-second, and then began to curve around to aim squarely at the heart of the grand cruiser. Equipped with the same void-sensing systems that were now the norm among the native armed forces of the galaxy, the first forty or fifty torpedoes detonated at the edge of the Vong’s defensive screen. The voids were rapidly overwhelmed by the energy, allowing the rest of the torpedoes to swarm through the gaps to detonate against the hull.
And that was only the first salvo.
As fire and blood flared from the wounded, living warship, another wave of torpedoes and missiles launched. This time void defenses could intercept only a fraction of the incoming attack, stunned by the fury of the first salvo and blinded by the fire and debris now filling space. More warheads detonated, leaving smoking and burning craters up and down the side of the grand cruiser.
The vessel’s commander understood, in some small way, how he’d been trapped, and responded in the only way a Yuuzhan Vong warrior: “Krel os’a hmi va ta!”
One of the many battles Halyn and Argus had discussed when laying out the defense of Iridonia had been the engagement between renegade forces and the Imperial defenses of Thyferra under Ysanne Isard. Wedge Antilles and Rogue Squadron, then operating outside the normal umbrella of the New Republic, had known that removing Isard’s capital ships, most notably the Super Star Destroyer Lusankya, had to be achieved to remove the former director of Imperial Intelligence from power. Lacking naval firepower, they had recruited and conscripted dozens of freighter crews, loading the vessels with proton torpedo and concussion missile launching assemblies, along with the warheads themselves. Using the targeting data from the X-wings, the freighters had proven capable of inflicting serious harm even on the mighty Super Star Destroyer.
The Zabraks were in the opposite position. They lacked the naval firepower they would need to keep the Vong away, but the Zabraks were playing defense instead of offense. Halyn and Argus had spent a large portion of their budget equipping the warship with completely automated missile launching systems. While such a system would be extremely limiting in a normal engagement—after firing its salvos, it would have no offensive capability for critical minutes or hours until the launchers could be reloaded—it made the perfect trap.
Halyn watched in satisfaction as the grand cruiser turned and accelerated towards the Star Destroyer. “Kryi,” he called above the noise, “bring back Skifter. Detail a wing to help them clean out those coralskippers, and then bring them back.” He heard the acknowledgement and watched the grand cruiser detonate as the third salvo of proton torpedoes savaged its hull.
And he allowed himself a satisfied smile as what remained of the grand cruiser crashed into the derelict Star Destroyer. It served its purpose, he told himself. Now, I’d bet, the Yuuzhan Vong will retreat to lick their wounds yet again.
Triak Kraal stared in disbelief as the blaze bugs showed, in brutal detail, the death of the mighty Kor Chokk, the largest vessel that remained in Domain Kraal. He turned to look at his tactician, but found he, too, was staring at the blaze bugs, his attention fully focused there.
“How…?” Triak rasped.
Ret Kraal shook his head mutely.
Triak tore himself away from the vision of disaster. “The yorik-akaga?” he shouted.
“They execute your plan now, Commander!”